Can War Be Beautiful?

The question of the Sainsbury ad response.

As is my custom on Sunday mornings, I rise only slightly later than on my weekdays. I pad out to the kitchen, make myself a lovely mug of coffee, and then settle into my comfortable chair. For a while, I may think, pray or just stare out at the trees swaying just outside the window. Then, I pick up my phone and read through a blog feed full only of content that I find interesting or lovely. Inevitably, I also check Facebook.

I work for an international organization and have travelled some. As a consequence, my feed is often full of international news, updates on BBC programs and occasionally a status entirely in Dutch. On this most recent Sunday, several people were atwitter over this year’s Sainsbury’s Christmas advert. Of course, I clicked the link to view the over-three-minute piece.

It is a stunning short film about the incomprehensible Christmas Truce of 1914—much more than a mere advert. And so, with tears still glistening in the corners of my eyes, I continued scrolling down. My eyes immediately fell on the headline “Sainsbury’s Christmas ad is a dangerous and disrespectful masterpiece.” Generally, I enjoy reading articles from the Guardian, as they give me a perspective often lacking in American news. In the case of this article, written by Mr. Ally Fogg, I must respectfully disagree with his conclusions that the Sainsbury’s ad is either dangerous or disrespectful.

In summary, Mr. Fogg’s assertion is that even though the piece is well done and historically accurate, it has two crucial flaws which deeply assault his sensibilities. The first of these is that it seems crass to use the particular brutality of World War I to sell groceries and Christmas goods. The second, and most deeply upsetting to myself, is his final assertion: “The filmmakers here have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful.”

Sainsbury’s is the third-largest UK supermarket chain. As a consequence of their influence and capital, they are easily able to produce stunning Christmas marketing campaigns. “Christmas is for sharing” is no exception. I agree with Mr. Fogg that at no time should we forget that this is indeed a marketing campaign designed to sell groceries, Christmas tinsel and chocolate bars.

What Mr. Fogg neglects to mention is that the Sainsbury’s portion of the piece is a mere three seconds long. There is also equal time given to highlight the Royal British Legion, an organization dedicated to supporting British service members and veterans. All of the profits from the sale of the limited-edition chocolate bars featured in the film will be donated to the Legion. Yes, it is a bit guilt-laden, but it is still a worthwhile bit of charity.

As with any good piece of storytelling, what remains in the viewer’s mind is not the six seconds of advertisement, but instead the previous three minutes telling of a profound day in the midst of adversity and atrocity. What has been captured is a historical piece for a population that is aware of the war only through history books. The last of the UK’s surviving witnesses to the War to End all Wars passed away over two years ago. I’m sure like many in the UK, I had heard of the Christmas Truce, but seeing it reenacted touched a deep place in my heart.

I do not agree that the filmmakers have made war beautiful, instead, they have shown the beauty of a single day. A day when no shots rang out. When men left the horrors of their trenches. When cigarettes and chocolate and football were shared. When the most joyous of holidays transcended nations, wars, languages and our own shared prejudices. It was a miraculous day when humanity won out.

So, can war be beautiful? Simply put, no. There is nothing lovely or humane about the brutalities of war. But like in any great tragedy, the spark of humanity burns brightly against this, the darkest of canvases. And that is why I celebrate the Sainsbury’s advert and all of the beautiful humanity that it represents.

Christy Janssen

Christy Janssen said she would never grow up to be a writer or an editor. So naturally, she now works in organizational readiness strategy and communications at a large poverty-focused non-profit and edits the Work channel of Humane Pursuits. She has too many hobbies, regularly says”yes” to more things than any reasonable person should, and is always thankful for how beautiful her life has become because of it. She, her husband, and their foster children live in the shadow of Pikes Peak.

1 Comment

  • November 29, 2014

    Jamie Carstairs

    Hello Christy
    Sorry to say but Sainsbury’s advert is a sham. The company plans to demolish a war memorial sports ground, established as a tribute to 300 rugby football players. Ironical, disrespectful – and hypocritical, no?
    For more info, please visit “The Memorial Ground, Bristol” wordpress site and please sign the petition NO SAINSBURY’S ON BRISTOL WAR MEMORIAL at 38 degrees.